What RFK Jr. Really Did for Riverkeeper – and What The Washington Post Gets Wrong

What RFK Jr. Really Did for Riverkeeper – and What The Washington Post Gets Wrong
American Values 2024 | March 19, 2024

By Larry Schnapf, Special to The Kennedy Beacon

Until recently, if someone were asked what they knew about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. besides his name, most people would have said it was his reputation as a stellar environmental lawyer and relentless crusader for the environment. Given his name recognition, he could easily have used his connections to enrich himself as a corporate lawyer. Instead, he has spent the past 40 years building and funding an army of environmentalists fighting for clean air and clean water.

Thanks for reading The Kennedy Beacon! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

So I was deeply disappointed to read a recent Washington Post article by Peter Jamison that sought to tarnish Bobby’s environmental legacy by dredging up and distorting a 24-year-old disagreement between Kennedy and the original founder of the Riverkeeper organization, Robert Boyle.

Jamison relied almost exclusively on allies of the disgruntled founder. In writing what amounted to an editorial masquerading as a news piece, Jamison ignored contemporary news accounts that portray the disagreement in a more complete context. These contemporary reports demonstrate that the debate within Riverkeeper in 2000 was not unusual for an organization undergoing exponential growth and a founder struggling to adapt to the needs of his rapidly expanding organization.

I first met Bobby Kennedy at an environmental fundraiser in a New York City club shortly after we became environmental lawyers in the mid-1980s. Because we focused on different aspects of environmental law, I have not worked directly with Kennedy, but as a fellow New York environmental lawyer, I have been deeply aware of and admire how Kennedy has used innovative interpretations of environmental law to protect human health and the environment.

After Kennedy joined Riverkeeper, he used his connections to recruit board members outside of the group’s original circle of commercial fishermen and grassroots environmental activists. He transformed Riverkeeper from a ragtag organization with few resources to one with an annual budget of more than $2 million. The yearly dinner dance that occurred just before the dispute discussed in the Washington Post article, which I attended, grossed almost $800,000, nearly half of Riverkeeper’s total budget.

The Post article centers on the 2000 dispute after Bobby hired a scientist to help monitor environmental compliance. The scientist had served time for conspiracy to violate several wildlife protection laws, including smuggling cockatoo eggs from Australia. Kennedy felt the scientist deserved a second chance. When Boyle learned of the scientist’s hiring, he fired him.

Jamison quotes from former Boyle allies, including his son, Alex Boyle, to argue that a “close examination” of Kennedy’s early years as a lawyer in the Hudson Valley reveal “the same qualities that today inspire his supporters and alarm his critics – obstinacy, an itch to challenge authority, a mastery of scientific minutiae that is paradoxically coupled with a loose allegiance to facts.”

Jamison wrote that Alex Boyd had told his father that Kennedy was a “rattlesnake.” But Alex had been reprimanded by Kennedy when, as a volunteer, Alex mislabeled samples collected from a polluted creek, an evidentiary mistake that could have seriously undermined the lawsuit. This is just another example of Jamison quoting a person who has a score to settle with Kennedy.

The article also quotes 90-year-old Fletcher Hodges, a former executive director, allied with Boyle, who criticized Kennedy for not attending staff meetings. This gratuitous critique does not reflect Kennedy’s role as board member and chief prosecuting attorney within the organization; he wasn’t required to attend staff meetings.

Jamison also quotes a former treasurer – another Boyle ally – saying, “Kennedy had a disconcerting tendency even then to persuade people by eliding, distorting or simply ignoring facts that got in his way.”

But what Jamison does not tell his readers is that a former treasurer told The New York Times, in November 2000, that he resigned from Riverkeeper because he was concerned that the organization “could lose $450,000 to $550,000 out of a budget of $1.3 to $1.4 million if Kennedy prevailed.”

There’s more. Boyle feared that having the scientist on the Riverkeeper staff would impede Riverkeeper’s lawsuit to protect the New York City watershed. In reality, Kennedy negotiated a landmark billion-dollar watershed agreement that permanently protected the New York City reservoir watersheds. The 1999 memorandum of agreement – the culmination of two years of negotiations with 40 upstate towns, the New York State Department of Health, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, and the federal EPA, among others – resulted in NYC agreeing to spend $1 billion over 10 years to ensure the safety of its water supply. Without the agreement, the city would have been forced to build a $6 billion filtration plant.

Speaking about the 1999 agreement, noted environmentalist Peter Lehner told the Times, “A decade ago nobody knew there was a water supply, they just knew you turned on your tap and got water. Bobby Kennedy’s drumbeat of enforcement cases on the watershed has brought the issue much more attention than it would have gotten otherwise.”

Indeed, NONE of the reasons that the founder and his allies gave for resigning materialized. In fact, Riverkeeper prospered. “Under Kennedy’s influence,” even the Washington Post article concedes, “the group continued to grow as a fundraising juggernaut; by the time he left in 2017 its annual revenue had surpassed $4 million, according to tax records. It has also expanded its reach, helping to seed nearly 300 affiliate organizations around the world under the Waterkeeper Alliance.”

So that’s what really happened in 2000. Does it in any way diminish Kennedy’s environmental legacy, and is it even relevant to the presidential campaign? A “close examination” – using Jamison’s phrase – of contemporary accounts reveals that the dispute was about nothing more than Boyle wanting to retain control and direction of Riverkeeper, as well as his distrust of the larger environmental movement.

The Times article from 2000 suggests the dispute was about control. Boyd is quoted saying “he didn’t have the right [to hire the scientist]. I do the hiring and firing.” The article further notes, “Several Riverkeeper employees and board members said they believed the [the hiring issue] was little more than a pretext for a power struggle.”

The NYT article also reveals Boyle as a naive purist. He complained that Riverkeeper was becoming like the rest of the environmental movement. “It’s matured, it’s lost its innocence, it’s become a profession,” he told the Times. “Once it becomes a profession, there’s a laxity in standards.”

But as John Adams, then president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a friend and admirer of both Kennedy and Boyle, told the Times, “The maturation of the organization, and the movement, was not necessarily a bad thing. The old Hudson River fishermen were pure,” he said. “But they weren’t a national movement, and things have changed. You’ve got to take opportunities to grow and build.” Pace law professor John Humbach also told the Times that Riverkeeper “would not have come nearly as far as it has without Bobby Kennedy.”

Jamison’s article attacks Kennedy for claiming he co-founded Riverkeeper, citing an interview with a dying and bitter 88-year-old Boyle, who said, “He co-founded nothing. He founded nothing.” While it is true that Boyle was the original founder, the Riverkeeper organization that Kennedy led was far different in size, funding, and impact than the one Boyle left. Kennedy reinvented Riverkeeper. As the Times notes in its 2000 article, at the time of Boyle’s resignation, Kennedy and his allies already accounted for the bulk of the group’s financing.

Bobby Kennedy’s Real Environmental Legacy

As a result of his work with Riverkeeper, Time magazine named Kennedy one of its “Heroes For The Planet” in 1999. But Bobby did not rest on his laurels. In 2000, he created an umbrella organization known as the Waterkeeper Alliance, which essentially replicated the Riverkeeper model across the country.

The Waterkeeper Alliance now has an army of over 300 “keeper” programs to protect the nation’s waters and bring lawsuits against polluters across the country. Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Waterkeeper Alliance took citizen enforcement of clean-water violations to a new level. Kennedy has worked with law firms across the country to aggressively monitor pollution of rivers, streams, lakes, bays, and coastlines. He uses his brand to publicize these cases and raises funds to support these lawsuits, as well as build public and political environmental support to protect these bodies of water.

Finally, Jamison’s article also distorts the purpose of the World Mercury Project that Kennedy formed in 2015. It was not established as an anti-vaccine group, as Jamison alleges, but specifically to end exposure to neurotoxic mercury in fish, medical products, dental amalgams, and vaccines.

One has to question the motives of Jamison and The Washington Post in publishing an article about a 24-year-old dispute while only interviewing people who belonged to the disgruntled group that left Riverkeeper. It appears to be another desperate but futile line of attack by the panicking Democratic operatives and their media errand boys, trying to taint Bobby’s outstanding environmental legacy with unfounded character assassination and mischaracterizations of fact.

Larry Schnapf has been a New York environmental lawyer for 40 years. He is also an adjunct professor of environmental law at New York Law School.

Thanks for reading The Kennedy Beacon! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

American Values 2024 © All Rights Reserved 2024